Of the dead speak no ill. To uphold the Roman injunction is to do posthumous injustice to Pervez Musharraf. The Pakistani warmaker-turned-coup-leader, dictator, and fugitive, who died on 5 February, built a career animated by such all-consuming malice and self-pity that to omit the ill is to give almost no accounting of his professional life—the life that sought glory for itself by shedding the blood of others.
India, the land of his birth and home of his forebears, was the fount of all his rage. Musharraf, much too young when his parents migrated to West Pakistan from Delhi, possessed no memory of his ancestral homeland. His worldview was shaped by the foundational logic of Pakistan: that its people belonged, by virtue of their faith, to a superior species that could preserve its purity only by erecting walls around itself in a separate State achieved by mutilating India. Indian secularism—more or less robust for the duration of Musharraf’s active life in the military and politics—complicated his worldview. For the invention of Pakistan to be vindicated, India should have become its mirror image.
But the India that Musharraf confronted, even when it was led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) between 1999 and 2004, remained largely secular. So Musharraf, honouring a tradition inaugurated by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, deployed force to wrest Kashmir from India. What distinguished the Kargil War of 1999, however, was that it was a wholly military-led operation executed without the knowledge of the legitimately elected government of Pakistan. Five decades of Pakistani mischief to seize Kashmir, far from weakening India, had devastated Pakistan’s own institutions from within. The Americans, horrified by credible intelligence that the Pakistani military was preparing to fire nuclear missiles at India, applied intense pressure on Islamabad to terminate its misadventure.
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Musharraf’s kind of thing
Unable to defeat India, Musharraf proceeded to disfigure what remained of Pakistan’s civilian institutions by defenestrating its government in a coup in 1999. Death can distort memory; it can make the wicked appear saintly. It is clarifying to remember that Musharraf’s putsch earned him lyrical tributes from the people regarded posthumously as champions of democracy. Benazir Bhutto praised him as a “professional soldier” who was “very courageous and brave”. Musharraf, she assured sceptics in the West, had “been a commando, and a person who is a commando can take tremendous risks and think afterward.” Stephen Cohen spoke for America’s Pakistan “specialists” when he described Musharraf as a professional soldier who wasn’t interested in power. Musharraf “is going to want to get out of power as quickly as he can,” Cohen claimed. “This is not his kind of thing.”
But power was very much Musharraf’s kind of thing. After capturing it, he did all he could to keep it. Discipline, the word often used in the early aftermath of the coup to compliment Musharraf, was really not a virtue he prized. As a new officer in the 1960s, Musharraf went on leave for eight days in defiance of explicit orders prohibiting him from leaving the barracks. When his superiors ordered him to return at once, he disregarded them. Decades later, he recalled that story, not with embarrassment or as a cautionary tale against disobedience in the army, but as a fable of his own bravado. Only in an undisciplined, corrupt, unprofessional force could such a self-regarding malingerer thrive.
Musharraf did not radiate much affection for his soldiers, either. His army refused to claim the bodies of the dozens of fighters he sent to fight India in Kashmir. Indian forces, even in the midst of all the savagery, were flabbergasted by this squalid act of disavowal. “No government or army ought to disown their people,” one Indian officer told the foreign press. “Think of the humiliation for the families at home—the religious sentiments that will never be fulfilled, the sons who will never know how and why their fathers laid down their lives.”
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Becoming celebrity statesperson
The American ‘war on terror’ that ensued after the 9/11 attacks, initially alarming Pakistan’s military establishment, eventually became a source of impunity and self-enrichment for it. Musharraf, minted as an ally by the Americans, sought to reinvent himself as a celebrity statesman. He shopped around for an American imprint, published a ghosted memoir, and toured major TV stations to dispense pseudo wisdom. At home, he trampled on opponents.
Musharraf came in time to appreciate the perils of extremism—but cosmetically and only to the extent that it affected Pakistan. Musharraf’s Pakistan took American aid while aiding America’s adversaries. He continued to shield A.Q. Khan, the nuclear black marketeer; protect terrorists operating in Afghanistan; and sponsor terrorists waging war against India. He left the terrorist machinery in such impeccable condition that it was able to besiege Mumbai a month after he quit office in 2008.
The Americans abided it all because Musharraf seemed indispensable to the appearance of success in the war on terror, which had acquired a life and logic of its own, degenerating from a grand civilisational mission into a farcical public relations exercise. India, too, behaved with self-wounding inconsistency. It allowed itself to be persuaded by Washington into the delusion that it could foster friendly relations with Pakistan—a State for which India’s destruction is a self-validating imperative—with dialogue and cricket.
By 2008, having exhausted his utility for his patrons, Musharraf quit. The life in exile that followed was difficult and awkward. His former friends avoided him. He struggled to get meetings and was reduced to yelling on Indian television. Obsolescence became intolerable. So Musharraf convinced himself that the admiring comments on his Facebook page were an indication of a deep current of support for him in Pakistan.
In 2013, after four years of living abroad, he returned home to “save Pakistan”. If hubris had characterised his conduct in office, only hallucination could explain his decision to go back. Rather than lead Pakistan, he became a captive for three years and was permitted to leave in 2016 on the grounds of urgent medical treatment. Nobody expected him to come back this time. After six years as a fugitive, the man who had been driven all his life by the desire to vanquish the country in which he was born, finding himself rejected by the country he claimed to love, died in a foreign land.
Kapil Komireddi is the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India. Follow him on Telegram. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)